The bunting is strung, the Union Jacks are flying, recordings of Churchill’s Victory in Europe Day celebratory speech, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, and Vera Lynn songs are being played on the radio. The Queen will be giving a speech at 9.00pm – this time not so extensively trailled that we know exactly what she is going to say. Footage of London in the Blitz, of women working in factories, of children being evacuated and of the crowds celebrating in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus is being shown on television. There was a two-minute silence at 11.00am to ‘remember’ those who died during World War II, whom the Prime Minister was quoted this morning as saying ‘we will never ever forget.’ It is VE Day.
The ending of the war in Europe with the surrender of Nazi Germany is unquestionably a very hard-won historical moment that fully deserves to be commemorated. And, although the vast majority of the UK population was born after 1945, there are enough people still alive 75 years later for ‘remembering’ to be a literal remembering, not a ritualized metaphor. That is not the case with the annual insistence on ‘remembering’ on Armistice Day those who were killed in the ill-named ‘Great War’ . The statement that ‘we will never ever forget them’ is, however, an obvious, if pious, exaggeration. So far today we have been spared the nauseating hypocrisy of Laurence Binyon’s ‘They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old…’ with its pretence that those who were slaughtered in the mud and stench of the trenches were the lucky ones, to be envied by the rest of us.
If I sound less than effusive in my enthusiasm for the day’s celebrations, the flags and the bunting, it is because history is seldom invoked neutrally, entirely for its own sake. On the 8th May 2020 the celebration of VE Day just happens to be particularly useful for Johnson and his Cabinet. In the first place it serves as a very timely, if I suspect very brief, distraction from the mounting evidence of the homicidally negligent and incompetent way in which they have handled the Covid-19 pandemic. Secondly, it plays directly into their nationalistic Brexit narrative. Plucky little Britain standing alone against the dark forces lined up against her in Europe, and eventually ‘wrestling them to the ground’, in Boris’s immortal words, and coming out on top, victorious, happy and glorious. Don’t mention the indispensable help in that endeavor that came from the Commonwealth and USA. Even without the fervor of celebratory street parties, they will no doubt hope that VE Day celebrations will re-energize the Brexit faithful to support them in gleefully pushing ahead with the deranged business of burning our bridges with our major trading partner when the Brexit ‘transition’ period ends on December 31st. The Covid-19 pandemic is confronting us in UK with a 30% shrinkage in our GDP and a massive increase in unemployment, why should that stop our government shooting itself in the other foot?
Because Covid-19 is getting in the way of street parties, we are being encouraged to have ‘1940s-themed tea-parties’ instead. Those presumably are the ones where there is no milk and sugar, there wasn’t any flour to bake celebratory cakes, and even the tea-leaves are rationed. It is never too soon to start getting used to life after Covid-19 and a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.